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july 2004

On documentary photography


by Hans Durrer
Next Left: Fashion designer Calvin Klein

"In photographs," Susan Irvine wrote about the designer Calvin Klein, "he looks handsome, tanned, the all-American success story. In person, he looks withered, hunched, dancing nervily from foot to foot."

"Ceci n'est pas une pipe," the painter René Magritte explained his picture of a pipe, thus making the point that the picture of a pipe is nothing but a picture of a pipe. The same applies to photographs, although — and unlike paintings — we perceive them as strangely real. Moreover, despite us knowing that they can be, and sometimes are, manipulated, we trust them to be truthful — unless someone proves them to have been tampered with.

  Essentially, photographs are documents, they are records. Even in our digital times in which we know less and less what to take for certain, our belief in the power of photographs to serve as evidence has not faltered. When, for instance, the death of Saddam Hussein's sons needed to be proven, it was done with photographs.
  For photographs to bear witness, they need to be true. Yet truth and lies are not words much in use nowadays, for they seem to demand the kind of clarity, and conviction, we shy away from — preferring notions that express how relative everything is. Yet the longing for truth is as much part of the human condition as the desire to have a history. We do not want to be lied to, and we enjoy the knowledge of having a history. It is in this sense that photographs are visual reminders of things past, and as such represent material for the archives of humankind.
Next Photographs can thus serve as visual memories. And as much as they can become memory, they can also be used to block memory. It is precisely for this reason that the personalities of the people who contribute to the shaping of a photograph are important — it is the credibility of photographers as well as photo-editors and curators of photo-exhibitions that "guarantees" the authenticity of photographs. Yet, authenticity is not always relevant in photography — in advertising, for example, it is of no importance. In documentary photography, however, it is imperative for we want from documents what they, implicitly, promise — evidence of things observed.
  Documentary does not mean television features about African wildlife or about historical events; neither does it allude to official documents such as passports, stamps, or school certificates. Documentary, as understood here, is about the things as they are, and not about how we would like them to be. It is about making personal records of events that take place in the physical world — for other people to see how the photographer has framed what he has witnessed. It is about telling a story. "Look at what my eyes have allowed me to see," as well as "Look at what I have allowed my eyes to see," such pictures exclaim. Moreover, they need to be taken with an open and respectful attitude towards the world we were born into. Documentary's task is to explore the world in a humanistic spirit — in a loving, caring and dignified way, that is. It is about discovery, not about creation; about finding out, not about inventing, it is about learning to become aware of the miracle called life.
Next Photography is still about the eye behind the lens. It is about being a filter, and it is about recording. It is about leaving one's home and seeing what is out there, it is about taking a look at the world that surrounds us. It is about reminding us of how things once have looked.
  This, of course, can be done with any camera, yet it seems that the thinking of the digitalists has more to do with painting than with photography — for painting and digital imaging are about creating images, they are about being in command of the process of creation whereas documentary is mainly concerned with reflecting what is out there. Digital imaging, despite its making use of the camera, is a discipline of its own, for it is essentially about artistic arrangements of pixels on a computer screen; it is about the rearrangement of the world according to one's whims.
  This is not to say that such undertakings can't be interesting, this is only to say that I find the world out there far more tempting that the prison of my own thoughts. Documentary photographers, as far as I'm concerned, should do what they've always done — in the words of Ken Brower "wander the world ... like the Zen archers we imagine them to be, with just thirty-six chances per roll."

  • Brower, Ken (1998), "Photography in the age of falsification." In: The Atlantic Monthly, May 1998, 92-111.
  2004 © Hans Durrer / 2004 © Soundscapes